Working Through Hidden Mindset Barriers

Summer 2016

By Debby Irving

“We cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

Imagine your school’s graduation day some years from now. You look around at your community abuzz with the joys of watching a new generation of students launched. You know they are ready. Each and every scholar has made her mark on the school. Each has grown into a confident, expressive version of that younger person who showed up in the admissions office just years earlier. The school has become a place where students, families, educators, and administrators have thrived, not regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, and other social differences, but because of them. Your school has helped students and adults build the emotional stamina and cultural skills necessary to cultivate and nurture multiple-perspective thinking and nuanced understandings. At last, your school has lived up tp the ideals stated in its mission and diversity statements.

Imagine further: Your school has had near-bottomless funds to create this multicultural environment. Still, the challenges your school faced surprised you. Though you had thought that affordability was the greatest challenge to access, you found yourself surprised by a different set of barriers — unexpected mindset barriers. Overcoming these mindsets, it turns out, was central to developing a multicultural community.

Examining the We/Them Paradigm

Let’s start with a leading mindset barrier about the term “diversity.” For years, my unspoken mindset was that “diversity” meant increasing the numbers of students, faculty, and administrators of color. Over time it expanded to include ethnically, religiously, and socioeconomically diverse people as well. As I quietly constructed my understanding of the term, I remained unaware that I was stuck in a we/them paradigm. “We” were striving to attract and admit “them.”

When the term “inclusion” came along, I remember thinking, “Yes! That’s a great term. We need to be inclusive once diverse people get here!” Notice my use of the word “we.” As my colleague Verna Myers writes in her book Moving Diversity Forward, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Though I embrace and often use that quote, I can’t help but also notice that in both statements there is unspoken power and privilege. We get to invite them. We get to ask them to dance. In a we/them mindset, the risk is that “diverse” candidates might be treated, and therefore feel, more like guests than full-fledged community members. Even the most well-intentioned, well-funded diversity efforts can be undermined by the prevalence of this kind of unexamined we/them thinking and the divisive barrier it holds in place.

As a daughter of racial and class privilege, I am tragically familiar with this kind of thinking. In examining when and where this mindset took hold, I find more memories than I care to admit, many going back to childhood events I once viewed with wide-eyed innocence. For example, every summer my family traveled to northern Maine to a lake community populated with beautiful summer cabins owned by extended family and multigenerational friends. Not only was I deeply attached to this place and its traditions, I took immense pride in the fact that my family had “founded the town,” thanks to an 1807 United States government land grant. Free land! Founded a town! My heart and mind filled with pride every time I thought of this remarkable intersection of luck and achievement.

Neither family stories nor the history I learned in school had contextualized my family’s presumed good luck or achievement. With the violent history attached to the distribution of land grants unknown to me, I lapped up tales of my pioneering ancestors and felt a deep sense of belonging as a founding family. Only at the age of 48, when a graduate school course began to expose me to history I’d never known and perspectives I’d not heard, did my paradigm begin to shift. As it did, I felt overcome with grief as I realized how my own ignorance had allowed me to repeat history in ways that lifted up my self-image while simultaneously casting judgment upon those I’d been taught to see as “other.” After 48 years of thinking myself a “good” person wholly detached from racial injustice, I had to examine the origins and limitations of that thinking.

I embarked on a journey to examine where my ideas about being a good person had come from. I was clear that, in my family, part of being good included kindness and charity. I recalled how Saturday mornings at the lake began with a family trip to the dump, often with a donation of hand-me-downs for the local Indians.1 One summer when we replaced the screens on our cabin’s front porch, for instance, my parents had us carefully roll up and bind the old screens and lay them at the dump’s perimeter. Part of going to the dump was the excitement of seeing the Indians take what we’d set aside. I felt proud to be from a family who would take the time to separate the trash for “the needy,” a term used interchangeably with “the less fortunate.”

The connection that was never made for me was that the people I was feeling so virtuous about helping were suffering because of the displacement caused by my family moving in on their land as part of a national effort to displace and oppress indigenous people. Looking back, I understand how twisted it was to see myself as generous in “helping” those I’d been taught to see as less fortunate, given that their disadvantage was inextricably linked to my advantage.

In my segregated upper class, white world, the topic of displaced indigenous people never made it into polite conversation. Without learning to make connections like these, I remained able to feel as if “we” had nothing to do with “their” circumstances. No one ever taught me that land grants, citizenship, Social Security, and GI Bill benefits were all resources and rights disproportionately distributed to white Americans at the expense of everyone else. In the void, frequently articulated ideas about a level playing field and the land of the free filled my head with glorious ideas about a fair society in which my family had benefited from nothing other than its own smarts, a strong work ethic, high morals, good luck, and good genes. Yes, we actually used that phrase in my family — “good genes.”

And this is a crucial component of my we/them mindset: not only am I prone to feel disconnected from “them,” but deep down, I can feel superior. After all, if the playing field were level, “we” must be better players. Right? This set me up both to adopt a helping-and-fixing mindset and feel fully entitled and equipped to do so. What I completely missed was that those I had been taught to see as “less than,” in fact embodied values, strengths, and humanity that I lacked. What I’ve learned as I’ve worked with independent schools across the country is that these mindset limitations are not unique to me; they are both ubiquitous and undermining best intentions to create 21st century institutions. With a mindset focused on including “them” in “our” community and culture, not only is it possible to offend and alienate those “we” seek to include, it’s possible to miss the whole point: Multicultural education is not an act of generosity; it is a strategy to right historic wrongs and evolve beyond the limitations of a single culture in order to grow individual and collective human potential.

Shifting from a We/Them Paradigm to a Multicultural Paradigm

Successful multicultural environments include not just a range of people, they equally value the range of cultural behaviors and values that a range of people brings. To drive home the point, think about this: If diversity were merely a matter of populating a space with different kinds of people, we could say that plantations were diverse. Successful multicultural initiatives embrace all community members’ cultures in order to create a climate expansive and adaptive enough for all to feel a sense of investment in creating something new together.

And yet, for members of the dominant culture, imagining our culture as one of many can be illusive. Because my ideas about good/bad and right/wrong were echoed in families, institutions, and media portrayals all around me, they never felt like the norms of a single culture; they felt universally right. Cultural habits such as conflict avoidance, emotional restraint, individual accomplishment, and efficiency didn’t feel like one way of being in the world; they felt like the best way of being in the world. This self-serving mindset positioned me to judge and feel superior to people from cultures different from mine, effectively reproducing the very divide diversity and inclusion initiatives purport to dismantle.

Only when I began to understand my own cultural attitudes and behaviors, and their limitations, was I able to grow beyond them. It’s not that my cultural ways of being in the world are bad or wrong, it’s just that they are exactly the wrong tools for the job of creating deep, authentic human connection, an essential ingredient in multicultural initiatives.

To illustrate this point, let me share two cornerstones of my cultural training, how both undermine cross-cultural engagement, and how I’m working toward new understandings and competencies around each. Though I frame them in a personal perspective, experience tells me that they are shared widely among many whites — especially in independent schools. Both are practiced behaviors that need to change if we are to create true multicultural communities in schools.

I learned conflict avoidance through phrases such as “Never discuss politics or religion in polite company,” “Don’t rock the boat,” and “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” By studying subtle facial and conversational cues, I discovered what was and was not acceptable conversation. Crossing the acceptability line often resulted in a swift change of topic or deafening silence that delivered a pang of shame and reminded me to stick to safer topics. I became a master of light and friendly conversation.

Though I can still do this comfortably at social gatherings, I’ve learned that bridging the we/them divide demands a different form of engagement. When the elephant in the room is a history of denial and ignorance about 400 years of unjust public and private policies and practices, uncomfortable conversations are inevitable and necessary. This presented me with an immense personal challenge. Being raised in a conflict-avoidance household not only made me want to run when conflict arose, it left me with zero conflict navigation skills.

The good news is that these conflict navigation and resolution skills, and the emotional stamina they require, can be developed. As Howard Stevenson, professor of urban education and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, reminded audience members at last December’s NAIS People of Color Conference, it’s a matter of competence, not character. The even better news is that increasing conflict navigation and resolution skills frees me to engage more competently with everyone in my life. This is a basic human skill that I now realize my culture did not teach me. The trick for me has been to become increasingly comfortable with discomfort. A motivator for me has been learning about the degree of discomfort that people of color experience every day in white-dominated spaces. Leaning into conflict and tension in the name of collective growth is one way I can take some of that load off community members of color while also making myself a more competent and resilient human being.

Emotional restraint, another piece of my rearing, was taught to me without language. By carefully observing the judgments cast upon those deemed too emotional, I learned to rein in my own. Whereas crying appeared to indicate weakness and deserved pity, anger seemed to be a more serious, if not dangerous, character flaw. I came out of childhood with engrained habits of stuffing my own emotions while harshly judging strong emotion, especially anger, in others. In fact, I saw anger itself as the problem.

Though anger, which usually accompanies conflict, can still make my stomach clench, I now understand that it’s a critical messenger. People do not get angry for no reason and listening deeply, without interruption, is essential to dismantling the we/them barrier. We are all human. We are wired to get angry when we feel unjustly treated or marginalized. I now feel that asking people to suppress anger is a form of violence. Judging or dismissing people’s anger is the opposite of good customer service, the opposite of unconditional love. Those most dissatisfied are the very ones whose feedback offers insight about our community’s current limitations, barriers yet to be dismantled. I now consider the expression of anger, or its milder form, irritation, as a gift. Expressing either emotion in dominant-culture environments is done at great risk, but it’s a risk that can bring immeasurable reward if those on the receiving end have the skill and stamina to process it.

As with learning to navigate conflict, increasing my ability to listen to strong emotion both within myself and in others makes me a more competent and resilient human being. More to the point, it enables me to shift from being a barrier to a school’s evolution into a multicultural community to being an effective player in the process.

Beyond the Barrier

It fascinates me how circular all of this is. My indoctrinated cultural habits allowed me to overlook, or even judge as wrong, the wisdom and insights that come from living life on the margins where resourcefulness, connectedness, and resilience abound. As I craved the comfort of people familiar to me, I ended up isolating myself in a world unaware of America’s racially divisive history and impacts. I had no idea of the harm I could do to another person, or to an entire initiative, simply by clinging to my own comfortable cultural habits. And the last thing I ever imagined was that I might be the one who needed some helping and fixing, that my culture had failed to develop my full humanity.

How could I begin to contribute to dismantling a mindset that I didn’t know I harbored? How could I negotiate cocreating a new culture when unconsciously I was overly invested in my own? Though crossing the we/them barrier is an essential first step toward dismantling it altogether, a lack of self-awareness among dominant-culture members too often reinforces the barrier in ways that remain unspoken, unexamined, and anxiety provoking.

My work brings me to campuses across the country where diversity and inclusion ideals remain trapped in the frozen text of mission statements, the land of best intentions. Though campus after campus teems with big-hearted, loving, “good” white people, I observe community members fearfully dancing around one another, instead of courageously interacting with one another. The fear is palpable as old habits such as conflict avoidance and emotional restraint keep us from one another. To me, it feels like a tragic love story, one in which people are longing to be with one another, and yet hidden barriers hold them at arm’s length. These barriers can be made visible and can be overcome. What can be most surprising is that the kind of institutional change diversity statements envision requires personal transformation for those of us raised in the dominant culture, transformation that builds basic relationship skills. Multicultural education is not an act of charity; it is an invitation to become fully human with and for one another.


1. I now know to refer to the indigenous people displaced by my family as members of the Maliseet nation.

Debby Irving

Debby Irving is a racial justice educator and writer and author of Waking Up White. Learn more at